‘To Uncover the Secret of the Person, While Preserving the Secret as a Secret’ – A Review of the Bulgarian Dostoevsky Society’s International Symposium “The Anthropology of Dostoevsky”

by Peter Winsky

In his letter of August 16, 1839, Fyodor Mikhailovich wrote to his brother Mikhail Mikhailovich that “the person is a mystery…I am studying that mystery because I want to become a person.”[1] In similar fashion, scholars from around the globe gathered for the International Symposium on “The Anthropology of Dostoevsky” to continue Dostoevsky’s quest to understand the enigmas encrypted into the human being. Organized and held by the Bulgarian Dostoevsky Society between October 23-26, 2018 at the Sofia University of St. Kliment Ohridski, the Symposium addressed the question of the person as a problem and subject of investigation in Dostoevsky’s world. The gathering was held in honor of the 150th anniversary of the publication of the novel The Idiot.

According to Professor Emil Dimitrov, the chief architect and mastermind of both the Symposium and Bulgarian Dostoevsky Society and one of the most engaging and passionate organizers of an intellectual gathering one could possibly meet, “the question of Dostoevsky’s anthropology is not ‘What is the person?’ (that is, in the way according to Kant), but ‘What is the person capable of?’ It is the testing of the ultimate foundations of the person and humanity, the testing of the boundaries of this humanity, on the other side of which the person becomes something else – subhuman or superhuman (the Man-God, according to Kirillov)… In the spirit of Heidegger, I can say that the purpose of our Symposium is to uncover the secret of the person according to Dostoevsky, while preserving the secret as a secret.”[2] To achieve this, Professor Dimitrov built a magnificent series of events to compliment the presentations at the conference, and in doing so brought together professionals from varied disciplines, not only literature or philosophy scholars, via the particularly welcoming and friendly Bulgarian culture and lifestyle.

The morning of the first day of the Symposium opened with a panikhida, an Orthodox requiem service, for Fyodor Mikhailovich in the rotunda church of Saint Sofia, constructed between the 4th and 6th centuries. Following the service, the participants transferred to the main hall of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences for the official opening of the Symposium, marked by short welcoming speeches from Professor Dimitrov and Yordanka Fandakova, the mayor of Sofia.

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Opening Remarks from Yordanka Fandakova. Image Credit: Emil Dimitrov

Following the opening greetings, Dr. Sergei Sergeevich Khoruzhy, founder of the Institute of Synergetic Anthropology at the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow and professor, mathematician, and philosopher, delivered the plenary address for the Symposium entitled “The Eschatology of Dostoevsky in the Context and Light of the Contemporary Renaissance of Eschatology.” Over the course of his remarks Professor Khoruzhy mused on the foundations of Dostoevsky’s eschatology as a personal and anthropological question through the lens of certain episodes in the novels such as Marmeladov’s Confession and Versilov’s Dream. The second half of the talk addressed the apparent ‘realizations’ of the apocalyptic situations of which Dostoevsky had prophesied (i.e. the Revolution), and possible connections of his visions and to contemporary manifestations such as global terrorism.

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Plenary Address by Sergei Sergeevich Khoruzhy.  Image Credit: Emil Dimitrov

Following Professor Khoruzhy’s captivating presentation the Bulgarian Dostoevsky Society provided a cocktail reception amid an exhibition of sketches and paintings inspired by The Idiot entitled “I was Happy in a Different Way…” After the reception, the conference began in earnest with two sessions exploring the anthropocentric universe of Dostoevsky. Panels on topics ranging from varieties of philosophical discourse in Dostoevsky, such as through Hegelian influence, to literary evaluations of The Idiot, including this author’s presentation on questions of narrative construction through the lens of Orthodox Personalism, to comparative analyses with novels like Zamyatin’s We or Ivan Bazov’s Under the Yoke, continued for the following two days. These presentations mapped and investigated the macro- and microcosmic pockets of personal being and its reverberations throughout the author’s oeuvre.

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Lazar Milentievich and Emil Dimitrov during Session One. Image Credit: Emil Dimitrov

The Symposium was not confined to the academic sphere of presentation and discourse. Every evening Professor Dimitrov engaged the participants with an assortment of cultural activities, ranging from a performance of Bulgarian Orthodox singing in the Museum of Iconography in the basement of the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, to a dinner accompanied by Bulgarian folk dancing and singing, and finally the first ever screening of Akira Kurosowa’s film adaptation of The Idiot with Bulgarian subtitles.

The film was presented by members of the Japanese Society of Akira Kurosawa and the Dostoevsky Society of Japan. Select members also spoke during a round table event that showcased rare interviews with Kurosawa on his work translating the novel into cinema. The history of the lost footage from the film, which exists because of the demands of the studio on the director to make the movie under 3 hours, was also discussed. These presentations, which comprised the closing panel for the conference, truly reinforced the universality of Dostoevsky’s art as it penetrates not merely across linguistic and national boarders, but across cultural codes and mediums as well. If the task of the Symposium was, as Professor Dimitrov noted, an engagement with and evaluation of the boundaries of the person and an inquisition into its mystery, then this final discussion showed that the riches of the mines of personal being in Dostoevsky’s work are far from being uncovered.

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Presentation by the Japanese Society of Akira Kurosawa. Image Credit: Emil Dimitrov

On the last day of the conference, the participants of the Symposium set out together for the Rila Monastery, located 73 miles south of Sofia. During the excursion the group wandered beneath the breathtaking frescos of the central church of the Nativity of the Mother of God, the museum of religious artifacts, and were greeted by the Hegumen of the monastery. From the beautifully tree-lined valley in which the monastery is situated the conference ended at a vineyard and winery near the Greek border where Professor Dimitrov toasted the participants, the forthcoming publication of the conference proceedings, and a future International Symposium of the Bulgarian Dostoevsky Society. The curtain was drawn on the conference in the same way in which it was revealed, with the joyful spirit of academic cooperation and exploration into the mysteries of Dostoevsky’s profoundly personal worldview.

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Participants of the Symposium at the Rila Monastery. Image Credit: Katja Winsky

[1] F.M. Dostoevsky, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v tridsati tomakh. vol. 28(I), ed. Bazanov et. al., (Leningrad: Nauka 1972-90), 63. Translations are the author’s own.

[2] Emil Dimitrov, “Osnovnoi voproc antropologii Dostoevskogo- ‘Kak chelovek vozmozhen?’” translated by the author (accessed, 2 Feburary, 2019).


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The author presenting his paper. Image Credit: Katja Winsky

Peter Gregory Winsky is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of California Los Angeles in the Department of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Languages and Cultures. He is writing his dissertation on the poetics of Dostoevsky’s late novels through the lens of Orthodox Personalism, with a particular interest in the relation of beauty, metanoia, and noetic vision to ‘higher realism.’ He presented a paper at the Symposium, titled ‘“I Opened to My Beloved, but My Beloved had Withdrawn” – The Anthropological Foundations of Myshkin’s Failure in Идиот.” 

CFP – First Symposium of the Bulgarian Dostoevsky Society

In collaboration with Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”, the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, the National museum of Literature (Sofia), the Museum of Christian Art (Sofia), the Gorky Institute of World Literature (Moscow), the State Museum of the History of Russian Literature (Moscow), the Research Center of Vjacheslav Ivanov (Romе), and the Society of Akira Kurosawa (Japan), the Bulgarian Dostoevsky Society is organizing an interdisciplinary symposium focusing on the anthropology of Dostoevsky in reference to philosophical anthropology and European culture of the 20th century,  Russian religious-philosophical thinking and culture of the 20th century, and specifically on the novel “Idiot” (on occasion of the 150th anniversary of the publication of the novel). The symposium will take place in Sofia on October 23-26, 2018.

The invitation is addressed to specialists from various fields of knowledge and research such as philosophers, specialists in literary studies, linguists, theologists, psychologists, psychoanalysts, etc. The official languages of the symposium are Russian, English and Bulgarian. Presentations, which should last exactly 20 minutes, will be followed by 10 minutes for questions and discussion.

Prospective participants should submit abstracts (up to 250 words) by e-mail to symposium2018@bod.bg by 31 January 2018. The organizing committee will get back to you with their decision at the beginning of March. The formal call for papers (in Russian and English) can be found here (and includes more information), and the preliminary schedule can be found here.

All those who work on Dostoevsky are warmly invited to consider participating in this symposium!